Short History of Asia’s Influence on Type and Printing

Even before Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, people in China and Korea were finding ways to print books and documents on their new invention — paper. Europeans traveling abroad may have come across these printed works, and the Asian printing practices may have eventually influenced Gutenberg’s invention.


The oldest surviving wood block-printed text in Korea was the Dharani sutra, and was thought to have been printed prior to 751 A.D. This was before the beginning of the Goryeo Dynasty, which lasted from 918-1392 A.D. It was during this dynasty that Buddhism became Korea’s official religion; the Buddhist religious texts were called the Tripitaka, which included sutras, treatises and laws. The Koreans were meticulous about their printing of the Tripitaka, printing two complete sets that required more than 8,000 unique wood blocks to print.

It was during the Goryeo Dynasty that the Koreans first began to work with movable type. They were dedicated to reproducing the Tripitaka, as well as other religious and secular texts, and it is believed that the first work to utilize movable type was printed in 1234. The Koreans used cast metal type, and it is believed that the first font was cast at this time, likely in bronze.

Four decades later, in 1270, Mongolian forces invaded Korea. During this time period, many documents were destroyed, and metal movable type allowed the Koreans to reprint and replace their documents. They might have used wood blocks to do this more quickly, but the hard wood they used to do their block carvings was in scarce supply. Metal type was used to print one of the only surviving documents from the dynasty, a religious text that was printed in 1377.


The Chinese had discovered wood block printing around the same time as the Koreans, and were mass-producing books with this method in the 9th century.

The first instance of movable type in China was in the 11th century. Created by a man named Bi Sheng, individual Chinese characters were formed out of baked clay, which was a fragile medium. Wang Zhen, a Yuan Dynasty official, invented a more durable movable wooden type to replace clay type in 1297. The Chinese also attempted to create type out of tin shortly thereafter, but the tin characters could not grip the thin, water-based ink that the Chinese used, and the medium was abandoned quickly.

Movable type did not last long in China. While alphabetic languages only utilize 26 characters, a Chinese newspaper might require thousands of different characters; because of this, movable type was much more beneficial to the Europeans than it was in Asian countries. Chinese printers could carve wood blocks in the same amount of time it took European printers to lay out their movable text, and for the Chinese, printing on wood blocks was less expensive. The Chinese had the added benefit of being able to store their wood blocks for later printing, something that was not possible with movable type.


Movable type did not become popular in Japan until significantly later than China or Korea, and even then it was limited to non-religious texts. In fact, the first known example of printing with movable text was a Chinese-Japanese dictionary that was printed in 1590. The first instance of wooden type-pieces was a version of Confucian Analects that was printed eight years later, using a Korean movable-type printing press to print the Japanese characters.

Although movable type was increasing in popularity across Europe, the Japanese language was better suited to the solid woodblock printing that Japan had been utilizing for hundreds of years, and so after a few decades of experimentation, by 1640 the Japanese had almost entirely reverted back to printing with wood blocks.

The Japanese — and Chinese as well — continued to use wood block printing as their primary printing method until the middle of the 19th century. Around this time, the United States began mechanizing the movable type presses and making greater advancements to the process, at which point East Asian and European countries embraced the printing press and metal type processes more fully.


Asia for Educators. “The Song Dynasty in China.” Columbia University. 2008. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.

Christensen, Thomas. “Gutenberg and the Koreans: Did East Asian Printing Traditions Influence the European Renaissance?” 2006. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.

Steins, John. “Wood Block Printing.” John Steins Printmaking Journal. 19 Jan 2010. Web. Accessed 23 July 2012.